As you drive down Route 112, it’s hard to believe that just to the east is a deep granite Gorge and federally designated Wild and Scenic River hidden in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains in Western Massachusetts. The 70-foot deep Chesterfield Gorge, chiseled out of solid granite by centuries of glacier action and the Wild and Scenic Westfield River, marks the entrance to a beautiful and remote recreation corridor.
Although early European settlers cleared most of the heavily forested terrain for farms, mills, tanneries, roads and towns, pockets of wilderness still remain. The corridor contains nearly 30 square miles of open space including the Chesterfield Gorge Reservation, Gilbert A. Bliss State Forest, the Knightville Dam Recreation Area and the Hiram H. Fox Wildlife Management Area.
The Westfield River flows through west central Massachusetts and merges with the Connecticut River in the town of West Springfield. Eighteen years ago, 43 miles of the Westfield River became Massachusetts’ first National Wild & Scenic River. Today, over 78 miles of the Westfield River’s headwater tributaries and three major branches (East Branch, Middle Branch, West Branch) have been classified as Wild & Scenic.
Miles of trails and old country roads including the 9 mile East Branch Trail traverse the area. Hiking, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and wildlife viewing are popular outdoor activities along the trail. The Westfield River itself is a popular New England fishing and whitewater destination. Each Spring, the river plays host to the Westfield Wild River Races, one of the longest continuously held whitewater races in the U.S.
The scenery is beautiful and each section of the river is unique. Over the centuries, rocks and huge boulders carried by the force of the water in the Spring have been deposited along the shallows and river bends, forming fantastic “Rock Art Sculptures”. In places, massive rock ledges polished smooth and carved by the hand of mother nature extend along the river banks into the river.
The surrounding forest of predominantly American Beech, Hemlock, Ash, and Oak is home to an abundant wildlife population which includes black bears, bobcats, porcupines, coyotes, red fox, beavers, otters, bald eagles and wild turkeys. Birds are everywhere. They nest in the fields and meadows, flit through the forest and wade in the wetlands. The East Branch is a classic trout stream and recently the first natural spawning of Atlantic salmon in Massachusetts in over 150 years occurred on the Westfield River.
Trail Highlights: Wild and scenic river, deep gorge, frothing whitewater, waterfalls, swimming holes, fantastic geological formations, incredible views, abundant wildlife and wildflowers, state parks and wildlife management areas and old mill sites and farms.
East Branch Trail : Chesterfield Gorge to Knightville Dam Recreation Area
We will explore a section of this rugged, wilderness corridor via mountain bike on the East Branch Trail (aka River Road or Snowmobile Route 93). It is a major scenic path that follows the Wild & Scenic East Branch of the Westfield River for 9 miles from the northern trailhead at the Chesterfield Gorge Reservation in West Chesterfield, MA through the Gilbert Bliss State Forest to Knightville Dam Wildlife Management and Recreation Area in Huntington, MA. The heavily forested, rock-walled gorge, airconditioned by the brisk Westfield River is the perfect escape from the summer heat above.
Parking facilities, picnic areas and seasonal restrooms can be found at either end of the East Branch Trail. Most people start at the dam and head north because it travels slightly uphill and the ride back will be easier. However, if you park at the Gorge, when you finish the ride, you can explore the Chesterfield Gorge Reservation area on foot.
There is nothing the fit beginner mountain biker couldn't handle, except maybe the distance (18 miles round trip). If you park a car at both ends, then an 8 mile option is a great choice for those who have not yet built up endurance levels.
The Trustees of Reservations manages the 166 acre Chesterfield Gorge Reservation. A half-mile railed walking trail leads along cliff rims and offers visitors eye-popping views of the Gorge bordered by 75-foot sheer granite cliff walls dripping with ferns and topped with hemlock and beech forest. An historical feature to note is the remains of the High Bridge located at the Gorge entrance.
Facilities at the Reservation include public restrooms, picnic tables and fire rings (fuel wood must be brought in). Trail maps are available at the information kiosk. During the height of busy seasons, map supplies may run out. Begin your bike trip at the parking lot. A trail leading from the lot connects to the East Branch Trail (River Road). Watch out for the closed gate at about .75 miles.
The East Branch Trail
Most of the East Branch Trail follows the river along River Road. It’s an old jeep road that is now closed to all motorized use except for maintenance vehicles. The trail travels over varied terrain of gravel and hard-packed dirt with muddy and rocky sections. Occasionally, the path climbs and descends from the river bank to points above the river and at times veers away from the river through dense forest. The East Branch Trail ends at a parking area along the Army Corps of Engineers Road north of the Knightville Dam, a massive Army Corps of Engineers flood control project.
The first stretch of the trail is the most dramatic. The route winds through a narrow, steep-sided rocky chasm along sloped river banks, past striking rock formations and ledge outcroppings. In the Spring, the swollen river rushes through the box canyon, tumbling, swirling and cascading over ledges and around boulders. Looking upriver along this section, cyclists are treated to fantastic views of the Gorge and Smith Pyramid Mountain.
Below the Gorge, the river valley gradually widens and slopes become more moderate the further you pedal south. A rich understory of low-growing vegetation such as grasses, wildflowers, ferns, nettles and shrubs blanket the forested riverbanks. Shady stands of hemlock forest adorn the upper slopes. All signs of human habitation disappear except for signs of early mill sites and farming activity. Sawmills, gristmills, textile and paper mills flourished along the East Branch above and below the Gorge. Look for man-made stone walls and stone foundations along the riverbanks.
A sign and closed gate marks the entrance to Gilbert Bliss State Forest. The trail here is fairly level and shaded by dense forest. There are some muddy sections and in places small streams cross the trail. Large rock outcroppings, boulders and ledges along the route provide perfect places to rest, enjoy a snack, the sounds, and views.
There is not much shade along the final stretch as you approach the Army Corps of Engineers Access Road. The valley widens and signs of human habitation become more apparent. Pedal down the wildflower bordered road to a small parking area. Turn around here for the return trip back.
Managed by The US Corps of Engineers, the 2,430 acre Knightville Dam Wildlife Management and Recreation Area is mostly undeveloped and a Massachusetts Watchable Wildlife site. A varied habitat consisting of old fields, wetlands, streams, rivers and acres of pine, hemlock and hardwood forests encourage a diverse wildlife population including deer, coyote, beaver, grouse, turkey and waterfowl. The river and tributary streams offer excellent trout fishing. Wildflowers blanket the open meadows and fields from Summer through early Autumn and attract butterflies and songbirds. The area serves as a pit stop for migratory birds in the fall. Keep your binoculars focused, birdwatchers.
Recreational activities abound in all seasons. In the Spring, the Berkshire meltwaters rush headlong downstream along the Westfield River, churning up the water into a frothy, foaming cauldron of whitewater. This is the time to launch the kayaks and canoes. Releases of water from the Knightville Dam in conjunction with nearby Littleville Lake provides challenging whitewater for the Westfield River Wildwater races that usually take place in April..
Several miles of trails, old logging and country roads provide hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding opportunities in the Spring, Summer and Fall. Several trails lead to former farm sites and dramatic cliff locations. There is easy access to the 9 mile East Branch Trail from Knightville Dam Road. Cross country skiing and snowmobiling (limited to the west side of the river) are popular winter activities.
Picnic tables, fireplaces universally accessible public restrooms, drinking water and a picnic shelter are located just below the Dam. The Indian Hollow Group Campground at the northern end of the reservoir is available to community groups. Reservations required.
Historical resources along The East Branch of the Westfield River range from early Native American archaeological sites to the first keystone arch railroad bridge in the country. Hilltowns along the river feature numerous historic buildings including mill worker housing, paper mills and 19th century architecture. Chesterfield’s historic main street is lined with well-preserved Federal Period homes.
The “High Bridge” located at the Chesterfield Gorge entrance was built in the 1760’s. It served as the Boston to Albany Post Road and the path of retreat for the Redcoats after their defeat at the Battle of Saratoga during the Revolutionary War. Floodwaters have long since swept the bridge away. All that remains is the eastern abutment.
Places To Visit Nearby
William Cullen Bryant was an American romantic poet, journalist, and served as the editor of the New York Evening Post for over 50 years. The William Cullen Bryant 195 acre Homestead, his boyhood home, is now a National Historic Landmark and museum. Beginning as a two-story farmhouse, Bryant converted it into a rambling three-story Victorian cottage. A sprawling red barn was used to store apples and pears from his orchards. 2.5 miles of footpaths and carriage roads traverse the the Homestead’s gorgeous pastoral landscape which remains largely unchanged for more than 150 years. Guided Tours and facilities available seasonally.
Location: 207 Bryant Road Cummington, MA 01026
Website: Bryant Homestead
Bisbee Hill Museum
Listed on the National Historic Register, the Bisbee Mill is a three-story 19th-century reconstructed grist mill that now operates as a museum. It features a blacksmith shop, woodworking shop, guided demonstrations using old tools and a small museum area which houses hundreds of historic artifacts.
Open Fourth of July and Sundays from 2 to 5 p.m. and from June 6th to Columbus Day.
Location: 66 East Street, Chesterfield, MA 01096
To Chesterfield Gorge from Pittsfield: Take Rt. 9 East/Rt. 8 South @5 mi. Turn left onto Rt. 143 East. Travel 12.3 miles and turn left onto Rt. 143 East/Rt. 112 North. After @4 miles, turn right onto Ireland St. Head south for 0.8 miles to River Rd. Turn left and continue to parking area on the left.
To Chesterfield Gorge from Northampton: Take Rt. 9 West @ 4.4 mi. Turn left onto Chesterfield Rd./Rt. 143 West. At Ireland St. turn left and head south for 0.8 mi. Follow above directions.
To Knightville Dam: Take US Rt. 20 to Huntington. Head north on Rt. 112 about 4 miles to Knightville Dam Road. Turn right and continue to the recreation area. From Northampton follow Rt. 66 to the end, turn right onto Rt. 112 then take the first right onto Knightville Dam Road.
To Southern Trailhead on River Rd (unpaved): From Rt. 112 in Huntington drive north past the turn to Knightville Dam Rd. Make the next right onto Old Worthington Rd and continue to the Army Corps of Engineers Rd (River Rd). Turn right and travel to the trailhead parking area.
For more information:
Chesterfield Gorge Reservation
US Army Corps of Engineers Knightville Dam